“Power without responsibility”
By Brian Fitzgerald
What was true and what was false “seemed, at times, a matter of almost complete indifference to them,” writes Renata Adler in her 1986 book Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al; Sharon v. Time.
Adler, a UNI fellow and a COM visiting professor of journalism, was referring to the conduct of the press in two notorious libel cases she covered for The New Yorker. In the book, two famous military men sued media institutions whose reporters, she writes, ignored “journalism’s first and fundamental purpose: accurately to report, and not, out of some atavistic institutional reflex, actively to mislead, to compound an initial error by either leaving it unchallenged or insisting it is true.”
It’s no secret that the media are capable of placing their own interests above the search for the truth. But what can be done to improve the situation? Scholars will address this question in the upcoming Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Conversazioni on Culture and Society entitled Power Without Responsibility: Was Kipling Right? The Press. It takes place on Thursday, October 7, and Friday, October 8, at the School of Management Auditorium. (See sidebar on page 7.)
The Conversazioni is an annual arrangement between UNI, Australia’s La Trobe University, and the University of Oxford to address the major topics of our time in a cross-disciplinary manner.
The phrase “power without responsibility” is from a letter author Rudyard Kipling wrote to his aunt in 1930. The whole sentence reads, “Power without responsibility is not a nice thing to watch.” In turn, British statesman Stanley Baldwin, who was Kipling’s cousin, used the phrase in a 1931 speech: “Power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” Baldwin was denouncing press barons Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothemere, whose newspapers he called “engines of propaganda.” The phrase has since echoed through decades of discussions of press freedom.
Adler covered the 1982 libel trials “pretty much by accident,” she says. While she was working at The New Yorker, editor William Shawn asked her to write a trials column. “I didn’t want to, because I get sort of claustrophobic in the courtroom, and trials tend to drag on,” she says. “I wasn’t really interested in libel at all. But then a friend told me that the average federal trial takes only 13 days, so I did it. And then I got drawn into the stories.”
What she found in the two trials, which took place simultaneously and in the same courthouse, were cases in which journalists at times exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth. In Westmoreland v. CBS, U.S. Army General William Westmoreland sued the television network after it aired a 90-minute program alleging that he participated in a conspiracy to mislead the American government and the public about progress in the Vietnam War. The case was finally settled out of court, with CBS issuing the statement that it never meant to impugn Westmoreland’s patriotism. Sharon v. Time centered on an article that accused Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of conspiring to exact revenge on the Gemayels, the ruling family in Lebanon. The jury decided that Time reporter David Halevy had not acted out of actual malice, but had “acted negligently and carelessly.”
“One of the biggest problems in journalism today is the use of unnamed sources,” says Adler. “They can be used ethically under very limited circumstances, but right now they’re used too often because the reporters are under such pressure from their editors to get the scoop.”
Adler delivers her lecture, Whose Speech Is Now Protected? The Individual Under the First Amendment, on Thursday, October 7, at 11:15 a.m.